When writer Miriam Arond and her husband, psychiatrist Samuel L. Pauker, M.D., surveyed hundreds of newlywed couples across the nation, they discovered that 85 percent had made love before tying the knot, yet the frequency and quality of unmarried sex had little to do with the reality of married lovemaking.
Nearly half said that after marriage, they didn’t have sex as often as they’d like; 20 percent of new wives reported low sexual desire. For a fourth of the wives, sex meant painful intercourse or elusive orgasms, while 1 in 10 husbands experienced premature ejaculation, and 1 in 20 had erection problems.
What ever happened to athletic, swinging-from-the-chandeliers, “did-the-earth-move-for-you-too?” prenuptial lovemaking? The deep, mystical, Tantric communing of two spirits? Hours of Hollywood sex complete with mood music, flickering candlelight, and satin sheets?
“The excitement of getting married gives couples a hit of dopamine — a feel-good brain chemical that increases sex drive. For a few months after marriage, things may stay hot,” says marriage and sex therapist Pat Love, Ed.D. “And while you still love each other and feel passionate about each other, the dopamine does settle down. You’re back to real life. Your normal sex-drive set point kicks back in. Your expectations about married sex take over. It’s the perfect time to do the delicious work of deepening your sexual bond.”
“The challenge for couples is balancing a sense of intimacy and safety and security with a sense of unpredictability and creativity and eroticism,” says Barry McCarthy, Ph.D., a psychology professor at American University in Washington, D.C. “When sexual intimacy is strong, making love plays a healthy 15 to 20 percent role in energizing your marriage. The paradox is that when sex is problematic, it plays an inordinately powerful, negative role in new marriages.”
Understanding the real sexual issues that newlyweds face can help you keep sex fun and fulfilling — now and for the rest of your lives. Experts say these hidden concerns can cool the hottest love life in the early days of marriage:
Mismatched sex drives.
“When your sex drive returns to its normal level in the months after you get married, couples start to notice a frustrating desire discrepancy,” Dr. Love says. “It’s perfectly normal. You’ve just got to work it out.”
Testosterone, the hormone of desire, fuels sex drive in men and women. But, Dr. Love says, relatively low levels of natural testosterone mean that two-thirds of all women don’t walk around thinking about sex all the time. “For these women — and I’m one of them — you don’t feel like having sex until you’re already having it,” she says. “That’s perfectly normal. It just means you have to approach sex a little differently. You have to make time for touching, time for sex. You can’t rely on being aroused to get things started. You have to start with relaxed touching and kissing to raise your arousal level.”
On the last night of a romantic two-week honeymoon, Priscilla and Greg Hunt bumped up against a radical difference in expectations and desire. “We had been making love three times a day on our honeymoon,” Priscilla recalls. “It was wonderful, but we were about to go back to real life. To work and school and doing the dishes and responsibilities. I had to say, it’s time to talk about moderation.” Says Greg, “Sexuality was a real issue. We were both learning about it in our college courses, but experiencing it firsthand was strikingly different. My testosterone levels were extremely high. We were not evenly matched for libido. We had to work hard to communicate. Sexuality is a very sensitive issue — you have all sorts of feelings and insecurities wrapped up in it.”
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Their solution? A fluid, flexible compromise: “There were times he wanted sex when we didn’t have it and times I didn’t want sex but we did. Thankfully, there were more times when we both wanted to make love. There’s been a natural ebb and flow. It’s something we still have to talk about,” Priscilla says. “This is the reality for every couple: You’re wired differently. If you have enough sexual experiences together that are positive for both of you, you’ll be able to work out the differences.”
This is an issue for many couples who’ve enjoyed a lusty sexual intimacy before marriage and/or during the honeymoon but who settle into different rhythms during day-to-day married life. The solution? Talk it out so that you don’t feel rejected, frustrated, or bored.
First Base, Revisited
Don’t wait for all that sexy dopamine to wear off. Using the heat, passion, and “let’s jump back into bed now” sexual urgency of your first months together to explore and expand your repertoire of touch. “The first two years of marriage are critical for building a sexual style that includes shared pleasure and deeper intimacy. Aim for that. Otherwise, sex problems can become the focus of your relationship,” Dr. McCarthy notes.
The sexual prescription? First, go back to first, second, and third base — touching for physical pleasure, not necessarily orgasm or intercourse. And get past old-fashioned man/woman sex roles that stand in the way of an emotionally close and erotic sex life. “Men are often socialized to value performance more than intimacy or pleasuring,” says Dr. McCarthy. “Women are taught to value relating and to see eroticism as the realm of wild, crazy women — not wives.
“Not all pleasurable touching can or should lead to intercourse,” he notes. “When a couple becomes comfortable touching inside and outside the bedroom, they’re building a closer, more solid sensual and sexual bond that will make them feel happier, closer, and even sexier now — and help protect against sexual problems in the future.”
Emphasize pleasure, not just the big O.
“Exploration and touch without the expectation of intercourse or orgasm helps couples get to know each other’s bodies and needs — you learn what kinds of touch are pleasurable as a giver and as a recipient,” Dr. McCarthy says. Pleasure and affection keep you close even when you don’t want sex.
Nurture emotional intimacy too.
Feeling understood, supported, and valued will make you both feel closer and therefore more receptive to physical closeness.
Sex-drive discrepancy? Busy schedule? Put s-e-x on the calendar. It’s a fact of life: Most of us married someone who wants sex more often or less often than we do. If you wait to feel turned on before you have sex, you’ll miss out on lots of great moments together. Let touching turn you on rather than expecting to feel aroused first. This may seem totally unnecessary during the hot-and-heavy exchanges of the Passion stage, but experts say it’s the best way to ensure you’ll still be enjoying great sex when your life is complicated by kids, a house, stress, reduced sex drive, and times of conflict.
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Low sex drive? Consider saying yes anyway.
“People freak out when I say this,” Dr. Love confides. “But if you make time for love and romance and try to say yes when your partner wants to make love — provided you’re not dealing with a compulsive or sex-addicted spouse — you will have a better sex life. Let your partner’s drive get you both into bed, or wherever you’ll make love, so that you can be touched and turned on. Why get into the habit of not doing it?”
Think of life as foreplay.
“I found out early on that relational issues that seem to have nothing to do with the act of sex itself make a huge difference to my wife and to her interest in intimacy,” Greg Hunt says. “I learned to pay attention to things I wasn’t naturally good at. If I’m ignoring her and also not paying attention to things like chores around the house, she’s not going to feel cozy and intimate at bedtime.”
Don’t use sex as a bargaining chip.
Angry? Say something — don’t grunt or “hmph” and roll over. Withholding lovemaking when you’re upset turns this deep, vulnerable connection into a nuclear weapon for power struggles. Adding layers of resentment to your feelings about physical intimacy is a surefire way to make sure neither of you will be in the mood.
Have realistic expectations.
And in particular, dial back on multi-orgasmic, transcendental expectations. Even for the most happily married couples, more than 10 percent of sexual encounters aren’t even pleasurable for one or both spouses, Dr. McCarthy says. An off night — maybe the sex is hurried, you’re tired or distracted, or simply uncomfortable — doesn’t mean you’ve got a big problem. It’s life. Don’t expect perfect sex every time — or wait for the perfect moment to pounce on your mate. Just connect!
Make it eye-to-eye, soul-to-soul.
You’ll feel more vulnerable — but couples report they also feel sexier, more attractive, more in-the-moment, and closer when they look into each other’s eyes during sex.
Never underestimate the power of a quickie.
You won’t always have all the time in the world for making love — and maybe you don’t already. Don’t overlook fast sex. It keeps the two of you in the intimacy loop, so you don’t jeopardize the compassion, happiness, romance, and understanding that sexual closeness can bring.